Friday, September 7, 2012

'' Its façade was decorated with glazed moulded brick decoration, with reliefs of bulls (symbol of the weather god Adad) and the so-called mušhuššu, the dragon-snake (the symbol of the god Marduk). These decorations were repeated hugely in different phases, only the latest phase is glazed. Snake dragon, really a composite animal with horns, a snakes body and head, lion forelegs, and bird’s hindlegs. Akkadian name mušhuššu means the furious snake.''

The ruins of the gate and walls were discovered and excavated between 1899 and 1914 by Robert Koldeway, a German archeologist and architect. After its excavation the entire Gate was shipped to Berlin where it was reconstructed and now resides at the Pergamon Museum. The Dragon of the Ishtar Gate may be one of Cryptozoology’s strangest, yet best-documented, ancient crypids. This two and a half millennium old depiction is so unusual that many treat it as a chimera, an impossible combination of animals that could never have existed in nature.

But the people of ancient Babylon knew and accepted the ‘dragon’ as real, as real as the bulls and lions that also share the walls.The Ishtar Gate itself was one of eight entrances to the ancient city of Babylon. Built during the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar II (604-562 BC) and dedicated to the goddess Ishtar it was the main entrance to the city until the final fall of Babylon sometime in the 1st or 2nd century AD. (King Nebuchadnezzar also constructed one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, a marvel filled with exotic plants and animals.)

”It was Koldeway who recognized the animal as the mushhushshu, a name derived from an Akkadian word that is loosely translated as “splendor serpent.” Early researchers mistakenly read it as sirrussu but the word has now been properly translitereated as musrussu, with mushhushshu as the commonly-accepted modern form. Koldeway considered the dragon to be a real animal. His belief was based on the fact that the animal had been depicted in ancient Babylonian art for centuries and had remained unchanged by the passage of time. He noted that depictions of gods and mythological creatures did change through the years leaving him to believe the mushhushshu was an animal well known to the Babylonians. (While Koldeway was right in most regards notice the belly scales on this version of the mushhushshu. Its scales are like those of a snake while the one on the gate and most other depictions are like those on a lizard. A misrepresentation or the degradation of a myth?)

Marduk was frequently depicted with an animal at his feet. In all cases, it is clearly the same animal, one sacred to him—and it was known as the Sirrush. The portrayal of the sirrush on the bas-reliefs shows a scaly body with a long neck and a long tail also with scales. The slim scaly neck has the head of a serpent with a horn and a long forked tongue. (Because the tiles show a side view, only one horn can be seen but in other depictions, two horns are clearly shown.) Flaps of skin cover the ears. The feet are unusual, the forefeet being those of a feline, perhaps a leopard or a panther. The hind feet, however, are birdlike, very large with four toes and covered with scales. This animal is identical to the dragons guarding Marduk and it is also an exact description of the dragons on the Ishtar Gate.

The Sirrush was referred to in Babylonian cuneiform inscriptions as mušhuššu which can be translated as “Splendor Serpent” or “Glamorous Snake.”

The characteristics given in the inscriptions are those of a hybrid creature, covered in scales, the horned head of a snake, the front legs of a feline and the hind legs as the claws of a predatory bird. The tail is described as scaly, long and sinuous. All in all, it is also an accurate description of the dragons on the Ishtar gate.

In 1902 the famous Ishtar Gate had been unearthed. Work continued until 1914 although it was not until 1930 that the Pergamon Museum acquired these materials.

Natural history and zoology were not among Professor Robert Koldewey’s specialties, but his opinion was highly respected no matter what the subject. When he first assembled an array of tiles that showed the Dragons of the Ishtar Gate, he immediately identified the animal as the Sirrush.

The overall portrayal of the animal is certainly of an animal very much drawn from life rather than mythology. Some of the beasts depicted in Assyrian and Babylonian folklore are no more, or less, believable than the dragons, bulls with wings, birds and jackals with the heads of men, for example. But in the century following Professor Koldewey’s excavations at Babylon, conclusions as to what was possible in biology had undergone a great change.


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